Poison Oak

“My favorite part is the darkness, because that’s what makes the stars shine.”

You looked over at me then, your eyes studying my face. “I can see them,” you said after a while. “The stars, and the darkness. I can see it in your eyes.”

A story inspired by the song "Poison Oak" by Bright Eyes

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3. Part 3: Piano Keys

 

    I picked up the next picture, gazing at it through blurred eyes. These memories felt so painfully real that I began to wonder if I was actually hallucinating it all. Did it matter? The next photograph was the last real one - the last which seemed like it had actually happened outside of a dream. It had been taken on the day before everything changed, before my world was thrown off its axis and the stars exploded in the sky. 

    It wasn’t something I wanted to relive, but I had to. I had to. I took another draught of whiskey and closed my eyes. 

 

    It was dark by the time I managed to sneak out, and the sky was cloudy. I couldn’t see the stars. 

    “Hey,” you said, startling me. You sat on a log by the edge of the forest path where we usually met up. 

    “Hey,” I replied, coming to take a seat next to you. Your eyes were shrouded in sadness, something I hoped never to see. Unfortunately, it had all but become the norm during the past few months. “Rough night?”

    You nodded, but didn’t elaborate. I didn’t ask you to. We simply sat there, together, in the forest, and that was enough. For now. Your silence was another thing that I was getting used to. I missed the days when you used to ramble on about everything under the sun, not caring whether or not I was listening. I was always listening, if not to your words, then to the the tone of your voice. I liked to hear the highs of enthusiasm and the lows of curiosity. I just liked to hear you happy, and I missed that. 

    “Do you remember,” you asked, “when we were kids?”

    I swallowed hard, but nodded. Only the worst days brought your reminiscence, making you feel the need to retreat to our younger days of innocence. “I remember.”

    “When we used to lay out and watch the stars,” you continued, voice heavy and nothing like I remembered from years and years ago, “and we would dream about going to see the glaciers and the ocean and everything under the sun? Just you and me?”

    “Just you and me,” I agreed. 

    You were quiet for a long time. When you turned to look at me at last, I noticed a fresh bruise on your collarbone. Brushing it gently with a hand, I pushed down tears. “Does it hurt?” 

    “No,” you replied.

    I nodded. We had an understanding, you and I. Your religious parents didn’t take it well when they caught us together, which was why we were now being forced to sneak around at night.  I missed seeing your face in the sun. When I first noticed the bruises, I was furious. I ranted and raged, threatening to call the authorities. It was you who stopped me with the serene smile that I had eventually grown to hate. It was a look of resignation, of accepting that you deserved this.

    You told me that it wasn’t safe for me if people knew we were together. You told me that I would be targeted for more than mere rumors, and I believed you. You told me that you were fine, that it didn’t matter to you, and, God help me, I believed you. I could see the stubbornness in your eyes, and that was an expression with which I was familiar. From that day on, I kept my anger to myself, offering only my support. That was what you needed anyway.

    “I’m sorry,” you said.

    “For what?”

    You had a look in your eyes which terrified me. It was a look of someone who had given up - something I never in a million years thought I would see in the face of the boy I loved for his bravery, for his spirit. “I’m sorry we never got the chance to go and see the world.”

    I pulled you close to my side. “There’s still time.”

    You didn’t reply, so I looked down at you. With a finger, I tilted your face up to mine and pressed my lips to yours. Even your kisses were laced with sadness. “I love you,” you told me solemnly. “Please don’t forget that.”

    “How could I?” I replied. “Not when I love you more than I ever thought I could.”

    I felt something hot and wet against my shirt and realized you were crying. Just as I raised my hand to wipe away the tears, you pulled away abruptly. “I have to go,” you told me. “Please don’t follow me.”

    “Wai-“ I began, but you were already gone. I stood, looking down the path after you, and I felt something brush my leg. I glanced down at it. Poison oak.

    I ran. 

    I followed you all the way back to your house. I heard you go in, I heard your father catch you at the door. I heard your raised voices and your father shouting, “You were with that boy, weren’t you?”

    I crouched at the corner of your property and closed my eyes tightly to hold back the tears as you replied, “So what if I was?” There was my brave boyfriend. There was the person I loved. 

    “I told you to stay away from him,” your father growled, his voice carrying through the open window. “He’s poison!”

    “I love him,” you rebutted coldly.

    “He’s twisted your mind,” shot back in denial. “He’s like the serpent in Eden; he’s fed you lies. You don’t really love him.”

    “I do!” you shouted. “I do, and I’m done hiding it.”

    “I can’t accept that. I won’t accept that!” There was a pause. “I thought we ironed this out when you were younger. I thought you had straightened out.”

    Your voice was as firm as I ever heard it as you replied, “Guess not.”

    Silent tears ran down my cheeks. I could only pray he wasn’t hurting you in the brief silence that followed. Still, I loved you more than ever in that moment. You had the courage that I never would, and you were doing this for me. I hated you for it. I loved you so much it hurt.

    “There will be no abominations in my house,” your father growled. “Get out.”

    You didn’t protest. I watched as your silhouette moved from the window to the front door, wrenching it open, then slamming it in the face of your father. You looked around, but didn’t see me, then ran to your father’s truck. Jumping in, you started it up and slammed it into gear even as I was racing your way. “Wait!” I called. “Wait!” 

    By the time I reached your back bumper, you were already pulling away. I knew you saw me in the rearview mirror; you had to have, but you didn’t turn back. You simply squealed off down the road, leaving me behind, alone, in the middle of the road. A cry and sob tore my eyes away from your retreating taillights. Your little brother, only eleven years old, stood crying in the window, cradled to your mother’s breast. By the time I glanced back at the road, all traces of you were gone. All traces but what I held within me.

    I loved you so much, and it hurt. 

 

    I had something to add to the box. I had one thing to add, and then maybe I could seal it up forever and shove it on some dusty shelf and never think about it again. It wasn’t that I would never think of you; I was always going to think of you. I just wanted to remember who you used to be before the cruel world crushed your spirit and sent you away. I want to remember you as the boy who gazed at the stars, not as the one who wrote this letter. 

    I didn’t need to read the letter. I had it memorized long ago, through the veil of many, many tears. But, hell, I was drunk, miserable, and what could it hurt, other than my already brutalized feelings? This one last time, and then I would put it all behind me. I read it again. 

 

I’m sorry. 

 

I saw you that night and I didn’t go back, and I’m sorry. I don’t expect you to understand, at least not at the moment, but I couldn’t take you with me. I couldn’t force you to go through what was coming, because I wouldn’t be able to stand the pain. You’re not going to believe me - you never do - but it’s better this way. It’s better that you get to go on and live your life and I’m out of it. 

 

I headed to Mexico, if you were wondering. Things are easier here. I found a checkbook in the glove box, and it’s getting me through. I guess I finally got to see the ocean, huh? It’s not as nice as I expected. Nothing ever is. 

 

I know you heard what my dad said that night. He was wrong. You aren’t the poison, I am. I don’t know if you remember (hell, I hardly do) but there was a time when we were kids and you almost fell into a patch of poison oak. I stopped you, and I said something that stuck with me as kind of a promise to myself. “I could never let you fall.” 

 

I’m the poison, and I let this go too far already. I can’t let you fall further. You’re safer, better off, if you just forget about me. Move on, live your life. Find an acceptable girl and settle down. I don’t want to drag you down any more, so I’m setting you free. But I’ll always love you.

 

Please tell my brother I’m sorry. 

 

I’ll always love you.

 

I’m sorry.

 

    There were tear stains smudging your writing in some places, and the edges were crinkled from my sweaty hands. I clutched your letter to my chest and cried some more. I didn’t need a picture or a letter to remind me of the night I got the call. There was nothing, past, present, or future, which could ever let me forget that night. Every detail stood out in stark clarity, no matter how much I wished the edges would blur and the pain would dull. 

    The moment I read your letter for the first time, my heart died.

 

    I was angry. I was angry at you, at your parents, at everyone. I still loved you, though. Of course I did. And when I got that letter in the mail, I couldn’t help the way my heart soared. I thought maybe you were coming back, maybe you were finally coming back. As I ripped open the envelope and began to read, however, my heart sank.

 

“I’m sorry.”

 

    I was too. I was so sorry. I was sorry that it had come to this, that you felt you had to protect me. I just wanted to tell you that I didn’t care about the danger, or the judgement. I would give anything just to have you back at my side, but you were gone. I cried and cried, and I read your letter a dozen times.

    It was that night that I got the call. My voice was nasally from the sobbing as I answered, “Hello?”

    I could barely understand what was happening as the man on the other end introduced himself as a Mexican police officer. The world seemed to still on its axis, and my heart stopped along with it when they said your name. After muttering something about finding my number in your emergency list taped to your wallet, the cop said, “I’m sorry to tell you this, but your friend is dead. He overdosed on heroin last night. I’m sorry,” he repeated.

    I couldn’t speak, but a raw cry of grief escaped my lips. The world began spinning again, but this time it was tilting, twisting, tumbling. The cop was still speaking in my ear. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” he kept repeating. 

    I’m sorry.

    Your words to me. I’m sorry. My words to you. I’m sorry. It was all that made sense anymore.

    I don’t know how I did it, but I somehow managed to drag myself to your house. I stood in your garden in the darkness, but it had withered at the turn of winter. You loved your garden, and now it was barren. I felt lost in an empty expanse, a field from which I couldn’t escape.

    I found myself at your door after a while. I think I knocked, for your mother opened it. “Can I-“

    I pushed past her, heading to the living room where your brother sat curled up on the couch with a book. I could only imagine what I looked like in that moment - probably like a madman. Maybe I was mad. Your brother looked scared, but I tried to be gentle as I squatted in front of him.

    “Your brother told me to tell you he was sorry,” I said, my voice raw and sore from the tears. “He’s gone.”

    Time seemed to pass in a series of scenes, with black radio silence in between. The next thing I knew, I was holding your brother as he cried into my chest. Your mother stood in the doorway, hands clasped over her mouth as sobs wracked her body. Your father was nowhere to be found. 

    Your brother wouldn’t stop crying, and he wouldn’t stop clinging to me. I wished he would. I wanted to cry too, but I couldn’t when I was trying to comfort him. I just wanted to go home and cry for the rest of my natural life.

    I patted your brother’s back, saying in a flat tone that lacked any comfort at all, “I’m sorry.”

 

    When your brother showed up yesterday, I didn’t question why. It was the ten year anniversary. When he thrust the box at me with tears in his eyes - that I did question. I invited him in for a drink, for old time’s sake, but he refused. He simply said that he thought I should have that box, and then he was gone. I stared at it all day, and went to sleep without opening it. Tonight, the curiosity got the better of me. I wished it hadn’t.

    I tipped the bottle of liquor, but nothing came out. Perhaps that was for the better. I folded the letter and shoved it in the shoe box, jamming the lid on the top. Stumbling to the kitchen, I grabbed a roll of duct tape from the utility drawer and proceeded to clumsily wrap the entire box. When I ran out of tape, it was completely sealed - a mess of shiny gray vinyl. 

    Tucking the box under my arm, I made it to my bedroom and shoved it in the most remote corner of my closet, then slammed the door shut. In a few minutes, I found myself back on the piano bench with little memory of moving there. It didn’t matter, anyway, I thought.

    The ivory keys stretched still and silent in front of me. Just yesterday, I had been able to play with abandon, but now… Now I wondered if I wasn’t those keys. Before I met you, I was still, lifeless, silent. But then you came along and you played me. You made me feel, you made me live. And then you were gone like a player after a show. You took your bow and made your exit, and that was it. The show was over.

    If there was one thing I knew for certain, it was that you wouldn’t have wanted me to fall still again in your absence. You served your purpose; you released me, freed me, and taught me to live. Now, I had to play my part. I had to accept your gift.

    I poised my hands over the keys, some part of my mind sober enough to allow muscle memory to take over. The melody I played echoed throughout the silent apartment, reverberating off the barren walls, but I still played on. I played, and with every lonely note, I became happier. Note by note, piece by piece, I recovered.

    I’m sorry it took so long. 

    I’m sorry.

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